Thomas Cleary, Prolific Translator of Oriental Texts, Dies at 72

Thomas Cleary, who translated dozens of Buddhist, Taoist, ancient Chinese and other texts into English, greatly expanding access to these works in the West, died June 20 in Oakland, California. He was 72 years old.

His brother JC Cleary, who is also a translator, said the cause was complications from heart and lung damage from previous illnesses.

Mr. Cleary, who lived in Oakland, has published more than 80 books, which in turn have been translated into more than 20 other languages, his publisher, Shambhala Publications, said in a post on its website.

The breadth of his work, both linguistically and subject-wise, was remarkable. He has translated works from Arabic, Sanskrit, Japanese and half a dozen other languages, and although his interest in ancient texts began with Buddhism, it has grown to encompass the Taoism, Islam, Greek writings and even Old Irish. He invariably began his books with detailed introductions that placed the text in historical context and explained concepts unfamiliar to Western readers.

“Translators who feel rooted in a higher culture tend to despise their sources,” said Robert Thurman, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and an expert on Tibetan Buddhism, via email. “Clary looked up, with empathy and intelligence, and shared his joy at opening our eyes to something new and unimaginable before.

His talent went beyond simply rendering words from one language into another.

“There are two essential qualities in a great translator: a solid understanding of the source language and fluency in writing in the target language, which is equally – and arguably even more – important for readers”, Nikko Odiseos , president of Shambhala Publications, which has published more than 60 of Mr. Cleary’s works, said by email. “The languages ​​and texts that Cleary translated are filled with terms and concepts for which there are simply no equivalents in English, and he was a master at presenting these multi-layered concepts in a concise manner. but complete, in beautiful and clear prose and verse.”

His books included “The Inner Teachings of Taoism” (1986), “Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues” (1991), “The Essential Quran: The Heart of Islam” (1993) and “Cormac’s Advice: the old Irish Guide to Leadership” (2004). Among the most popular was his version of “The Art of War” (1988), written by Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu over 2,000 years ago.

Mr. Cleary, although well versed in many religions and philosophies, did not profess allegiance to any one in particular.

“I’m not confined to any group,” he said in a 2009 interview for Sonshi.com. “I want to stay independent and reach those who want to learn directly through my books.”

Dr. Thurman said Mr. Cleary’s great contribution was “to bring ideas and sensibilities learned in Asia to a luminous life in our culture, to enrich our understanding and broaden our sensibilities”.

Thomas Francis Cleary was born on April 24, 1949 in New Brunswick, NJ. His father, also named Thomas, and his mother, Shirley Jane (Klein) Cleary, were chemists.

He grew up in Summit, NJ, and graduated from Summit High School in 1967. He earned a bachelor’s degree in East Asian languages, with a concentration in Japanese, from Harvard College in 1972, then graduated a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages ​​and Civilizations in 1975 from Harvard University. Thirty years later, he earned a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

The law degree, he said in the 2009 interview, grew out of his interest in exploring new solutions to systemic problems.

“The American system is changing and needs new ideas,” he said. “The current system is based on the power of the previous, so change is slow. By looking at other systems around the world, we may be able to solve problems, for example, in a more humanitarian way. »

He became interested in Buddhism as a teenager and started translating at the age of 18. JC Cleary, in an unpublished memoir about his brother, who was two years younger, said their schooling had been heavy on science and math, but their discovery of Buddhist scriptures revealed a whole different reality.

“From our point of view at the time, our mental state as teenagers in the 1960s, I think we were drawn to Buddhism because it gave the first articulate statement of truth that we had ever come across” , he wrote. “Buddhist thought was so trueso lucid, so encompassing, so refreshing, we had to stop and find out more.

Her younger brother served as a mentor as they both improved their fluency in various languages ​​and became more adept at translating.

“By 1975 we had crossed the language barrier to Buddhist sources,” wrote JC Cleary. “Tom had done it on his own, and with his help and encouragement, I had done it too.

“We came face to face with the Buddhist classics. An indescribable feeling! There was a sense of peace, of being out of time, of stepping into a realm of beauty. A feeling of wonder at the brilliant intellectual creativity of the person who created this material.

Thomas Cleary’s first book, a collaboration with his brother, was “The Blue Cliff Record” (1977), a collection of Zen koans (riddles or stories used to aid thought and meditation). Among his recent books are “Samurai Wisdom: Lessons From Japan’s Warrior Culture” (2009) and “The Secrets of Tantric Buddhism: Understanding the Ecstasy of Enlightenment” (2015).

Besides his brother JC, Mr. Cleary is survived by his wife, Kazuko Cleary, a pianist, and another brother, Brian.

In his introduction to “The Art of War,” Mr. Cleary explained that works like the ones he was translating required a different approach from the reader, who did not expect instant gratification.

“The classics can be interesting and even entertaining,” he writes, “but people still find that they are not like books used for diversion, which drop all their content at once; the classics seem to get wiser as we get wiser, more useful the more we use them.